Over the course of The Pickup Diaries
, I plan to take the occasional "20-second timeout." During these timeouts, I'll set aside my linear narrative to discuss current events and observations.
This is one of those timeouts.
On Saturday, I went on an epic five-hour bike ride all over the Chicago suburbs. Near the end of my ride, I decided to stop by my gym, Lifetime Fitness, to take a dip in the outdoor pool. On my way through the gym, I noticed the basketball court was nearly empty. I figured it was the perfect time to practice my shooting.
Lifetime's court has four baskets. One basket was occupied by a group of small children. The opposite basket was being used by a father and (I presume) his two sons. At the third basket, two friends were shooting around and/or playing one-on-one (or some strange hybrid of the two). The fourth basket was empty.Choosing a basket
There are subtle rules for choosing a basket to shoot at. Keep i mind that these rules assume there isn't currently a full court game going on.
If there are multiple baskets but one basket is empty, you obviously use that basket. If there are multiple baskets and all of them are in use, you go to the basket with the fewest people unless there is an active game going on (such as one-on-one, H-O-R-S-E, and so on).
Now, assume you go to the basket with the fewest people. Let's say there are four people at that basket (making you the fifth) and all other baskets have at least five people. Further assume that, while you are shooting, three people leave a nearby basket, reducing the number of current shooters to two. As the last person to start using your current basket, you are morally obliged to move to the basket with only two people, thus decreasing the number of people at your current basket and creating a more even distribution of shooters at all the baskets.
Mind you, these rules are never discussed. They are intuitive but nonetheless expected. And you never want to be the asshole who's creating an imbalance of shooters at a particular basket. Everybody hates that asshole. Just so you know.My routine
When I shoot around, I do my own version of Around the World. I start on the right baseline about three-to-five feet from the basket and work my way around the basket in an arc until I reach the left baseline. Then I take two steps back and work my way back to the right baseline. I continue this process until I pass the three-point line, and then I work my way back in. If I get through that circuit, I do sets of 10 free throws until I go 10-for-10. That usually takes me about three to four sets.
If I can get through all of that, then I start working on specific moves or weaknesses in my game (like finishing at the rim with my left hand, for instance). Also, during these practices, I only ever dribble leftie. It sounds simple, but little things like that can really help improve your handles with your off hand.Approaching a basket
Anyway, I was three rounds into my Around the World routine when a scrawny high schooler entered my zone. Just as there are unwritten rules for choosing a basket, there are also unwritten rules for approaching a basket already in use.
If the basket is in use by multiple players who do not know each other, you can walk right up and begin shooting. If the basket is in use by multiple players who do
know each other, you must assess whether they are about to start a game or are currently between games. Never start shooting at a basket where friends are playing a game or are about to play. To determine what's going on, you can aask outright, or you can dribble around the area until it becomes obvious.
If the basket is in use by only one other player, you can either walk up and start shooting or ask the basket's "owner" if he or she minds whether you shoot around. Of course, this player doesn't really own the basket, but good manners are free.
In this case, the high schooler opted for the "walk up and start shooting" method. However, even this approach can vary. Some people walk right into your general area and start chucking up shots. Others dribble around the perimeter for a minute or two in an effort to figure out what you're doing. At a big gym like Lifetime Fitness, there are some people who don't really play basketball but still end up on the court. These people are usually just messing around, wasting time or loosening up before or after a workout. These people are afforded the least respect.
Then there are people who play ball but are just idly shooting around with no real purpose. These people are afforded a medium level or respect.
Finally, there are players (like me) who are practicing with purpose. They are exerting effort and seem to have a specific routine of shots and/or drills they are going through. Generally speaking, these people are afforded the most respect. When joining a basket where this kind of player is shooting, most people will do their best to stay out of his or her way.
The high schooler was pretty respectful. He spent a few minutes either practicing or pretending to practice his ball handling skills while determining what my shooting process was. When he started shooting a couple minutes later, he made sure to move automatically to the areas I had just vacated or was moving away from. We adopted the all-important "boom...boom" rhythm, where one player doesn't shoot until one or two hearbeats after the other player has launched his shot. This way, neither person has to rush shots to avoid in-air basketball collisions.The challenge
The high schooler and I had been shooting around for 10 minutes or so when the two friends -- who had been doing their hybrid one-on-one/shootaround thing -- asked if we wanted to play two-on-two.
When friends ask to play against other non-friend players, they almost always want to play on the same team. However, etiquette dictates that you offer the non-friends the option to play together or mix things up (usually by shooting free throws to determine the teams). Unless it will create a large imbalance in talent, etiquette also dictates that the non-friends will let the friends play together. So I said it was fine, that I would play with the high schooler (even though his shooting had been erratic at best).
The two friends appeared to be in pretty good shape. One was about 5'9" and probably in his mid to late-30s. The other was over six feet tall and might have been in his early 40s. Both were sturdily built. For the purposes of this story, we'll call them Short and Tall.
Tall suggested we shoot for first possession. We all agreed, and since Short was holding the game ball, he took the shot and missed. So the high schooler and I started the game. I inbounded to him on the wing, set a pick for him and then made a quick roll to the basket. He hit me with a nice pass and I scored an easy layup. Tall wanted to play "make it, take it," so we got the ball back. The high schooler inbounded to me as I was flashing across the lane. I caught the pass and turn in for a hook shot. On the next play, I inbounded to the high schooler who easily beat his man off the dribble for a layup.
I'm sure you can see how this game was going.
We beat them pretty easily. I should mention at this point that, when the game started, I sensed that Tall believed he and Short were going to beat us. You can usually tell from body language and the way someone talks what that person thinks about his or her skills. When Tall had asked whether we wanted to switch things up, it felt like he was suggesting that letting him and his friend play together might be unfair to me and the high schooler.
As it turned out, the pairings were
unfair. Just not in Tall's favor.The excuses
Still, that didn't really hurt Tall's confidence. After we pounded them 11-1 in Game 1, he said, "Boy, you guys sure hit a high percentage in that game. Not much you can do when the other team's so hot, you know?" I just smiled and nodded. I understood he was trying to save face.
Game 2 was more of the same, although Tall and Short went on a 4-0 run to make it 6-4 before me and the high schooler closed things out with a 5-0 run.
After that beating, Tall said, "I think the key is keeping the ball away from you guys. We've gotta stop you on defense and then keep scoring on offense."
Gee, thanks, Captain Obvious.
Reading between the lines, what Tall was really saying (in part) was that he and his teammate had to get serious on defense. After the first game, Tall had dismissed out win as "hot shooting." When that continued in Game 2, he suddenly realized that, hey, his opponents were actual basketball players with actual basketball skills.
Now they were going to D us up.
But here's the thing: Part of the problem was that Tall and Short didn't match up with us very well. Specifically, the high schooler was much faster thans Short and I was faster and a little bigger than tall. On every possession, one of us would drive, draw the double team, and kick to the other one. Whoever received the pass would either shoot or drive-and-kick again.
Basically, we got an open shot on every possession.
In cases like this, the only thing the opposing team can do is start fouling. Short, to his credit, played clean. Tall? Not so much. He started bumping, grabbing, holding, and reaching. When none of that work, he would hack. At one point, I posted him up and absorbed four consecutive hacks before turning to shoot and getting whacked on the arm.
"I'm going to go ahead and call that," I said, "but that was, what, the fourth one?"
Tall laughed. "Sixth, I think." And then he smiled a friendly smile. See, that's what a lot of hackers will do. They play it really nice so, if you get mad, then you'll be the jerk. Man, I hate that little ploy.
Their newfound commitment to "defense" didn't change anything. The high schooler and I busted them again, this time 11-3. After the game, high schooler and Short went to get a drink. As I was shooting around, Tall said, "You know, usually I play every week, but I haven't played for the last three. I'm a little out of shape. Funny how fast you lose your wind, know what I mean?"
Ah, excuse number three: The "I was too tired" excuse. I love excuses
For whatever reason, Tall wanted one more shot at us. He took his hacking to the next level, but the result was another 11-4 beating. During the game, he was jawing at his friend/teammate to play harder and shoot better. After the game, he walked off the court and then flopped down in disgust. He couldn't understand how he and his buddy had just been defeated so completely in four straight games. They hadn't even been able to compete.
The thing was, I could tell that Tall had been good once. Maybe even very good. But he had lost a step. Maybe even two or three steps. It happens. Age happens. Which reminds me of a phenomenon I've been observing over the last decade or so...The Post-Alpha Dog Sydrome
The progression and regression of a typical pickup player's abilities can be represented by the following simple bell curve:
At some point, no matter how good a player is, he starts the slow but inevitable regression from "good player" to "bad player." There's no shame in this. It's simply the cycle of life. But not everybody is ready to accept that. Not at first, anyway. Which leads to the Post-Alpha Dog Syndrome (PADS).
PADS affects players who were once really
good -- you could rightly call them the "franchise players" of a pickup league -- but have recently begun the slippery slide down the second half of the curve.
They're still good players, but they no longer control
games the way they used to. They can't take over
anymore. They can be stopped cold by the better defensive players. They can't quite keep up with the better young players who can run faster and jump higher.
Many times, this regression is hard for the aging pickup baller to take. At this point, PADS sets in and the pickup player goes through the five stages of grief for their dying career:Stage 1. Denial:
During the denial stage, the PADS player simply denies anything has changed. He continues playing the same way he has always played. Only...it's not working. It's clearly not working. And once he realizes it's not working, that leads to...Stage 2. Anger:
Once anger kicks in, the PADS player tries to compensate for his declining skills by becoming a dick. On the offensive end, he begins calling cheap fouls that are often punctuated by verbal flops
and/or cursing. On the defensive end, he starts calling constant violations like charging, palming or traveling...regardless of whether he was involved in the play (such as a charge) or had the right angle to see the play (such as with a travel). And even on those rare occasions in which he doesn't call a foul or violation, he will complain loudly enough for everybody to hear (e.g., "Goddamn, that guy travels on every
The anger stage is also where many players start to develop Bruce Bowen-style tricks. Stepping on a player's foot. Undercutting people on "accident." Setting moving picks that involve more elbow than anything else. So on and so forth.
At first, this anger catches people off guard, especially if this player has a long history at a given pickup league and is generally well-respected. However, pickup ballers will only accept anger for so long. Then they start to turn up the social preessure until the PADS player's rage turns to...Stage 3. Bargaining:
When the other players have had enough of his bitching, the PADS player starts to openly plead for help. He may request to be on the better team "for once." If you're defending him, he may ask you to "take it easy on him." He will talk to anyone who will listen about his age, his conditioning, his weight, his old ankle injury...anything that might earn him some sympathy and therefore soften up his opponents. And it might even work. For a little while. But eventually, people will wise up to his little game and stop enabling him. This leads to...Stage 4. Depression:
The PADS player no longer enjoys playing basketball. Every game is a bittersweet event for him. Every possession seems joyless. Between games, he will talk to other players about "being done" or how he doesn't know how much longer he's going to play with "all you young guys." He might even use the word "retirement" half-jokingly, half-seriously. Some people will try to make the PADS player feel better -- "C'mon, you're still really good" or "Hey, I hope I can still play as well as you when I'm your age" -- but those efforts are in vain.
The real enemy...is inside.State 5. Acceptance:
Some PADS players will quit before they ever reach this stage. But many won't be able to give up. When you've been playing pickup ball for 30, maybe 40 years, quitting would be like divorcing your wife or maybe giving up masturbation. The PADS player is too old to be the player he once was, but he's also too old to change.
And so he comes to grips with the skills he's lost. He tries to contribute as best he can, never doing anything that's beyond his current abilities. Winning becomes less importand and losing less crippling. He starts to call fewer fouls and becomes friendlier to new people who join the league. He vows openly to "play until I can't play anymore." The battle is no longer against his opponents on the court...it's against time itself.
And that's when PADS ends.
Labels: pickup basketball, politics of pickup basketball, The Pickup Diaries